Name: Penelope Antena
Occupation: Singer, songwriter, producer
Current release: Penelope Antena's new full-length album Beamorose LP is out August 19 via Brooklyn / LA label Youngbloods.
Recommendations: There’s an eleven minute long cover of George Harrison’s “Isn’t it a pity” by Nina Simone that made me cry. And the 33rpm version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” that will blow your mind.
If you enjoyed this Penelope Antena interview, visit her on Facebook, Instagram, Souncloud, and bandcamp.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started writing very early on. My parents are both professional musicians and instruments were just there to grab and play on.
I used to be obsessed with Joni Mitchell, everything about her personality and her sounds/lyrics really spoke to me.
I don’t know what drew me to music, it’s sort of always been there, everywhere. I never thought of doing anything else. It was an evidence.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
When my first album (Antelope) came out, I was compared to James Blake and Justin Vernon a lot. Which makes sense I guess, because they’re definitely some of my favourite artists. But I’ve gotten tired of the constant comparisons and I’ve really looked into myself, and what I felt my own sound should be for this new record. It turned out to be more acoustic than I expected.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I don’t think it does. I think what I do, what I experience influences my creativity the most. There’s also something mystical about it in my mind. Sometimes if you pay attention enough you can grab what’s in the air that day and make a song out of it.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
As women, we’re told we need men, especially in a studio setting. All those machines to run, this super intricate gear. So like many, I started making music by relying on them. Waiting on them, listening to their inputs and opinions about what I should or shouldn’t do. It only lasted so long before I grew tired of it and put myself through hours of online courses, lessons with my dad, experimentations etc… until I was completely autonomous and able to write, record, produce and mix all on my own.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I started making music on Logic pro and stayed with it, even though Ableton is so hyped right now. I’m good with sticking to what I know.
I began writing with an acoustic guitar, then electric and these past few years, I’ve been learning jazz harmony on piano.
I think like many, what has motivated me in terms of equipment has always been money and what I could afford. Most producers are collectors and if it wasn’t for money and space, we’d all have every single thing out there.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Yes actually. The Organelle by Critter&Guitari. It’s this little blue box of wonder that shapes and transforms any sound wave you feed it into an exciting new voyage. Be it piano, vocals, guitar anything that comes out of this thing is the spark of a new idea for me. I’ve had it for 4 years now and not a single one of the songs I’ve written since, doesn’t include at least a slight little sound from it.
Because it’s in pure data, people can create their own “patches” (instruments, effects, samplers …) so not only is it amazing, the fun is also endless!
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Being so used to writing alone, sharing this process is fairly new to me, but I love it! Contrary to the first one, my upcoming album is filled with contributions and collaborations.
Because I live in France, a good chunk of it was recorded via file sharing. I really wanted this project to be as colourful as possible and to sound like a band effort. So everyone gave ideas and played whatever they felt like, I didn’t give any directives. I love the beauty of coincidences.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I’m a morning person, so I’ll wake up very early, take my dog for a walk, come home, make coffee, then start playing some piano, listen to music, get in the zone and wait for an idea to strike.
I spend a lot - and when I say a lot, I mean A LOT - of time by myself. Producing is my main gig, so there isn’t much to distract me from it. I have the incredible luxury of time, I can learn, discover, try and try again until I find something that’ll excite me enough that I want to dig deeper. Music has almost always brought life experiments to me, not the other way around.
Tours, recordings that’s how I met most of my close friends and even partners. They’re so intertwined, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I couldn’t make music anymore.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
Going to Chicago on a whim, with no real plan and ending up meeting so many amazing musicians really changed my approach to musicianship. I found my voice, my people there. This genre of experimental folk, experimental music period, that I felt I was the only one making in France. I met many similar creative minds and found a real sense of community there. It definitely was a game changer for me.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Again, to me it doesn’t matter what I’m doing, where I am, when inspiration knocks. I open the door, it doesn’t matter if I only have a guitar and a shitty mic or if I’m at Abbey Roads (which I’ve never been to obviously but let’s pretend I could).
When it’s time, new songs bloom in my head. I rarely spend a lot of time thinking about lyrics and what they mean, they just come flowing out of me. I try to impose as little to my work process as possible, the minute it becomes a hustle, it won’t work anymore.
“I’m the Antenna catching vibration, you’re the transmitter, give information” - Kraftwerk
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
Of course I have songs that’ll remind me of a dark time in my life, and some that are instant happy memory triggers. Music is what you want to make of it. Some will make you dance your problems away, some will make you bask in your sorrow. No writer can predict what their song is going to mean to everyone else. I can only hope what I’ve created has helped even just one person feel better.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I mean ... in the 12-tone equal temperament system, there’s only 12 notes. What’s a single genre of music that hasn’t borrowed from another, older one really. “Every song benefits from what preceded it”.
I like to think the broader your inspirations are, the better. Especially with sampling being its own genre now. I believe though, studying harmony will help create more original pieces. If you keep writing 4 chords songs, there’s a good chance they’re going to sound like a bunch of others.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
Absolutely no clue. I’m just a song-writer, not a doctor in cognitive science … I wish I knew more about it though. Being in France, I guess I could talk about Proust’s madeleine, but “In search of lost time” is 7 volumes long … Never got around to reading it.
Oh but there’s a beautiful nod to it in Ratatouille, when Ego eats Remy’s ratatouille and it takes him back to his childhood. What was the question again?
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
The end of the world is too close for me to take a social or political stand with my music. I’m just here to sooth souls and write companions to road trips and stoner nights.
Art is really just a mean of communication through time and space ( is what you would end up saying on both a road trip and a stoner night).
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
I can’t answer that question with only words now. Give me a piano, I’ll show you.